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Bringing ‘Garden of Eden’ to Africa under UN-sponsored nature restoration

Bringing ‘Garden of Eden’ to Africa under UN-sponsored nature restoration

Learning from the success in rehabilitating the Iraqi marshlands that some believe was the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden, United Nations-backed pilot projects are now targeting a ‘lost’ lake in Mali, a Kenyan forest that is a vital source for key rivers and lakes and land restoration in Haiti.

The projects are among several such large-scale and nationally significant rehabilitation initiatives that the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) wants to launch in five countries during the run-up to the next meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner told the Fifth World Conservation Congress in Barcelona today that the international community needs to “invest and re-invest in the ‘soft’ infrastructure too, from forests and fisheries to wetlands and soils, if we are to ensure water and food supplies in a world with climate change and in a world with 9 billion mouths to feed in just four decades.”

He spotlighted Lake Faguibine, a spearhead-shaped body of water linked with seasonal flooding of the Niger, Africa’s third largest river. At its maximum the lake can cover close to 600 square kilometres but has been almost totally dry since the 1970s.

A UNEP dispatched in August has now completed its preliminary assessment of some of factors behind the loss, including declining rainfall, increased evaporation and land-use changes – and of the benefits likely to accrue to close to some 200,000 mainly nomadic people living in and around the area.

The rehabilitation, expected to cost more than $12 million, seeks to manage the land and hydrological cycle, possibly including clearance of some 2 million cubic metres of sand blocking feeder channels, less intensive land use and more sensitive management of discharges from Niger dams. Several donor countries have signalled interest in taking the work forward in cooperation with Mali, UNEP and other partners.

UNEP will draw on the skills and expertise gleaned from a four-year, $14 million programme, funded by Japan, to assist Iraq restore the Marshlands of Mesopotamia, considered by some to be the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden, after they were massively damaged by a vast drainage operation carried out by the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein.

The project has restored clean drinking water for well over 20,000 Marsh Arabs as well as boosting habitats for a wide range of species. This has prompted the Iraqi Government to seek listing of the marshlands as a World Heritage Site with support from UNEP and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Lessons from other countries, not just Iraq, can also be applied. A new management plan for the Itezhi-tezhi dam in Zambia has helped to restore natural seasonal flooding of the Kafue flats, while wetlands expansion around Diawling National Park in Mauritania is helping to control flooding and improve livelihoods, UNEP said.

In Kenya, the Mau, the country’s largest closed-canopy forest, generates goods and services worth more than $320 million annually for the tea, tourism and hydropower sectors as well as feeding rivers and lakes in Kenya and Lake Victoria, which is shared with Uganda and Tanzania. But over recent years it has been impaired by poorly planned settlements and illegal logging.

Over 100,000 hectares, nearly a quarter of the total, has been destroyed in the past decade, putting at risk livelihoods, businesses and existing and planned hydropower schemes. A UNEP-backed Government task force is currently assessing needed steps, and restoration, including re-establishing forest plantations, promoting natural regeneration and forest enrichment planting, is expected to start early in 2009.

A further project proposal is being drawn up and staff being hired to restore soils, wetlands, forests and other key ecosystem on the hurricane-vulnerable island of Haiti where environmental degradation has been linked to social unrest, UNEP announced.